Germany had sought an armistice, under the terms of which all of its troops had to leave the territory on the west side of the Rhine. Allied forces were also to occupy a series of bridgeheads within a 30 mile radius of the cities of Mainz, Koblenz and Cologne. Yet Germany had suffered widespread civil unrest and the British troops did not know what kind of reception they would receive when, for the first time, they marched into Germany.
It was a cold, quiet Sunday morning on the 3 December 1918 when a troop of Dragoon Guards crossed the border. Behind them was a trail of devastation. The Belgians showed the passing British troops the black debris of great bonfires where the retreating German soldiers had piled rifles and machine guns and stores of all kinds and set fire to them before crossing into Germany. Over most of these bonfires sentries were placed and Private Stephen Graham remarked, the Germans were “still sufficiently German” to shoot any Belgian who attempted to steal from these ‘funeral’ pyres of the war.
“We passed often the pitiful remains of but lately slaughtered cows,” wrote Graham, who was serving in the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards. “Heads of cows with faces fresh and pleading, entrails in horrible grey heaps all along the way. And then all billets, all fields where the enemy had camped, were left in indescribable filth. There was a complete breakdown of discipline.”
At the time this was a major concern of the BEF’s senior officers. Though the Armistice had been signed by the German High Command, how the ordinary Germans would react was still not known. When those Guards crossed the border into Germany itself, it was not without caution. Yet what they did encounter was not hostility. Indeed usually they were welcomed, often with happy placards in colloquial English. These occupiers, though, were not the French, who in their march into the Rhineland would not be so warmly accepted.
On Foot into Germany
Behind the cavalry came the infantry. Through days of very cold, incessant rain, the occupiers marched through Belgium and finally, wrapped in their waterproof capes, entered Germany with no fanfare other than the swirl of the pipes and the tapping of the drums. Nevertheless, the men were full of curiosity to see the people they called Huns and the men still talked of bayoneting and cutting throats.
The First British Army of the Rhine
The British Army of the Rhine (BOAR) was created, for the first time, in March 1919. Originally it consisted of five Corps and a cavalry division under the command of General Sir Herbert Plumer. This force was gradually reduced, so that, by August 1920, it was composed of 13,360 regular troops, including cavalry, artillery, engineers, infantry, tanks, and a variety of ancillary services. From January 1920, overseeing the Allied occupation of Germany was the Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission, its role was to “ensure, by any means, the security and satisfaction of all the needs of the Armies of Occupation”.
“Presently we began to pass cottages,” continued Private Graham, “and we stared at them, but could see no people. Some of us shouted, ‘Come out and show yourselves’ and ‘Come out of hiding’”. When they did at last see German civilians they paid little attention to the passing soldiers. Women talked together with their backs turned, others continued with their daily chores unmoved by the sight of the conquering enemy.
The change of country brought no change in the weather, Graham remembered: “It rained and rained and the drums became silent, sodden and soaked with water, and we splashed patiently and mechanically on through the mud and over the broken roads. Our fours became twos, became long threads of single file as we picked our way amidst great holes and ruts and gliding rivers of yellow ooze. When there would otherwise have been a view of Germany, trailing mist, liquefying in the wind to bitter rain, swept hither and thither across our faces. On the sides of the roads was desolation.”
The Occupation of Cologne
To add to the misery of the drenched troops, the supply system broke down. On the positive, there had been no sign of resistance or of civil disorder. “Everyone, including the khaki vanguard, appeared relieved at the absence of demonstrations”, noted Captain Ferdinand Tuohy as the British troops marched into Cologne on 6 December 1918, beyond which was the agree-upon demarcation line separating the opposing armies. “For nasty, ugly work had been duly prepared for. Machine gunners would not hesitate that critical day, which saw but a handful of British as the lords of a great German city undoubtedly harbouring ten thousand sulking ex-Fieldgreys and Reds.”
The mayor of Cologne had wisely put up notices to his citizens to accept the occupying army. Such acceptance, he advised, was to be “without cringing and without scorn, which are not only foreign to the German character, but odious in the eyes of the enemy”.
The population of Cologne, therefore, in the main displayed a “mask of indifference”, which was worn with studied care. There was, Tuohy noted, method in the German submission. Cologne had gone through a period of anarchy and looting prior to the arrival of the BEF, fostered and led by de-mobbed soldiers and sailors. At one point the Red Flag had flown upon one of the city’s main buildings. The fear of the Communists, rather than the humiliation of defeat, was uppermost in the minds of citizens. On the first day the BEF had marched into Germany, civilians had rushed to the churches and town halls shouting, “Save us from the Reds”.
The fear of the Communists, rather than the humiliation of defeat, was uppermost in the minds of citizens
The large part of the industrial city’s pragmatic population believed that British bayonets would ensure order on their streets, and, for that they were grateful. Sir W. Beach Thomas, who was a journalist officially accredited to GHQ, related one remarkable spectacle of German gratitude. A number of Belgian soldiers had helped drive off a group of rebels. They were housed in a hotel commanding two of Cologne’s principal streets where they became all but besieged. The reason why they were trapped in the building was, as their senior officer explained, because of “an excess of popularity”!
At noon on that first day in Cologne the British cavalry rode up to the Hohenzollern, or Hohenzollernbrücke, Bridge, built to take both road and rail traffic, which spanned the Rhine. A young trooper of the 18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary’s Own) had occupied a sentry post on the town side. Meanwhile, a second trooper advanced half-way across the bridge and paced up to a chalk line. Facing him was an armed German sentry. That sentry was the very last man of the German rearguard.
One of the many British reporters present was Cecil Roberts. “It is more than 100 years since Cologne has been occupied by enemy troops,” he wrote. “Six months ago Germany would have laughed to scorn any suggestion that British soldiers would ever stand upon the banks of the Rhine. Today we are holding the bridge that is a vital highway into the very heart of Germany and in due time the British troops will march along the Rhine and occupy the bridgehead on the left bank.” In the meantime, the two armies would face each other across the Rhine, their meeting point being the Hohenzollern Bridge.
If they talk they speak to each other in French, which is the soldiers’ universal language, both having had four years’ lessons on French soil.
“Our sentries are posted along both sides of the bridge,” continued Roberts, “but their domain ends near the left bank entrance, which is guarded by a German soldier also with a fixed bayonet. Our sentry marches down to the sloping way where the German ends his march, and then turns right about. If they talk they speak to each other in French, which is the soldiers’ universal language, both having had four years’ lessons on French soil.
“In addition, the bridge is guarded throughout its length by the City Guard Civilians, armed with rifles, who are under the authority of the Burgomaster. These men can be seen throughout Cologne, their work being to quell all public disturbances.
“Our cavalry has established itself at the central points and by the bridgeheads. I noticed the machine guns ready trimmed for action, with the gunners standing by, and as I emerged from the superb Cathedral a British armoured car flashed by.”
The Formal Entry
On 14 December 1918, Sir Charles Fergusson, the newly appointed British Military Governor of Cologne, made his formal entry into the city. At the same time the occupying troops advanced to the perimeter of their bridgehead 12 miles away from the eastern side of the Rhine.
As the cavalry crossed the river, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief the British Army of the Rhine (as it became known), General Sir Herbert Plumer, took the salute under the Union Flag. As the first squadron rode by, the rousing chords of “Rule Britannia” rang out, followed by “The Long, Long Trail”. For two hours the cavalry, Lancers, Dragoon Guards, Hussars, and Royal Horse Artillery passed over the bridge – and Sir Herbert saluted them all.
The former War Correspondent Philip Gibbs was present, and wrote this account: “This morning at 10 o’clock our cavalry passed through the streets of Cologne, crossed the Hohenzollern Bridge, and went beyond the Rhine to take possession of the bridgeheads.
“For some days not many British soldiers had been seen in the City of Cologne, the troops being camped in the outskirts, and it was only yesterday afternoon that the British Governor made his entry and established his headquarters in one of the hotels which had been taken over for the purpose. Crowds of German people gathered to see the man who will control their way of life during the British occupation, and were kept back in a hollow square by their own police when the Governor’s motor car drove in with an escort of lancers, while a band of Scottish pipers played a greeting.
[So] today when British troops rode across the bridge and passed beyond to further outposts it was the supreme sign of victory for them
“This morning the passing of the cavalry over the Rhine was an impressive sight for all the people of Cologne, and for the British was another historical episode on the long journey of this war, which has led at last to this river flowing behind British lines. To the German people the Rhine is the very river of their life, and down its tide come drifting all the ghost memories of their race, and its water is sacred to them as the fount from which their national legends, their old folk songs, and the sentiment that lies deep in their hearts have come forth in abundance.
“In military history the Rhine has been their last line of defence, the moat around the keep of German strength; so today when British troops rode across the bridge and passed beyond to further outposts it was the supreme sign of victory for them and of German defeat.”
The next day it was the turn of the infantry. “Even as the day before the condition of the horses and the polished glitter of their riders had been a thing to thrill,” recalled an admiring onlooker, “now across that same Hohenzollern Bridge trudged the 29th, the 9th Scottish, and the 1st Canadian Divisions through cold, incessant rain. These famous formations, so representative of the BEF, were finishing up in the element they had known best – mud.”
Following the occupation of Cologne, on 14 December 1918, Sir Douglas Haig issued the following statement: “Our advance troops have crossed the Rhine and begun the occupation of the Cologne bridgehead. By the evening they had reached the general line of Oberkahhel, Siegtburg, Obenthal, and Opladen.”
This was not, noted one newspaper, his only action: “Sir Douglas Haig has issued a proclamation which is posted throughout the British Army zone, warning the inhabitants against violence towards any members of the Army, mishandling army stores, or doing damage to public works, under penalty of death or other punishment. The severest penalties will be inflicted on persons hiding German soldiers, and upon civilians disobeying Sir Douglas Haig’s orders.”
“With their river covered with machine guns,” noted Cecil Roberts, “their bridge under the guard of armed sentries, and their streets patrolled with armoured cars as well as their walls posted with the proclamations of Sir Douglas Haig in the name of his Britannic Majesty, [the Germans] cannot doubt who has won the war, however indifferently they deport themselves.” It quickly became apparent, however, that such warnings were either headed or unnecessary.
In the days following the occupation a harmonious relationship quickly developed between the German people and the British and Dominion troops. After the horrors and privations of the war, the local population was, on the whole, anxious to live life to the full and places such as Cologne which were occupied by Allied soldiers recovered far quicker than most of those across Germany. This was largely due to the money that the thousands of British troops had to spend.
The End of Occupation
The British and Dominion occupation of the Rhineland was authorised by Article 428 of the Treaty of Versailles. This stated: “As a guarantee for the execution of the present Treaty by Germany, the German territory situated to the west of the Rhine, together with the bridgeheads, will be occupied by Allied and Associated troops for a period of fifteen years from the coming into force of the present Treaty.” However, the following clause, Article 429, went on to state that “if the conditions of the present Treaty are faithfully carried out by Germany, the occupation referred to in Article 428 will be successively restricted as follows: i) At the expiration of five years there will be evacuated: the bridgehead of Cologne…” As a result, in December 1925, the BOAR withdrew from Cologne, though other areas remained occupied by other Allied nations. “Not since Wellington’s army occupied Paris after Waterloo have British troops carried out such a memorable occupation of ex-enemy territory as that which is now closing at the bridgehead of Cologne,” wrote one correspondent, John Sandes, in the Northern Advocate on 21 December 1925. “The five years’ period expired some months ago, but the evacuation was delayed because Marshal Foch reported that Germany had failed to carry out the prescribed conditions with regard to disarmament. Further undertakings given by Germany have now been accepted as satisfactory, and the evacuation of Cologne by the British troops has begun.” The Rhineland was supposed to remain demilitarized permanently. All that changed in 1936 when Hitler led the German Army back over the Rhine.
The men were paid fortnightly at standard army rates. The value of the German Mark had fallen steadily since 1914 which meant the spending power of the British troops was high. As a consequence the Allied troops, already elated with victory, were able to celebrate in style. “As the Mark dropped Thomas [Tommy Atkins] correspondingly opened out his living style,” recalled Captain Tuohy.
“At first when celebrating, he had been satisfied with Rhine wine. But very soon he decided that Fritz was trying to palm off ‘muck’ on him and he turned to champagne. Large numbers became inveterate champagne drinkers … It was the period of officers’ clubs and of endless entertainment ‘troupes’ for all ranks. Hard by G.H.Q. on the Domplatz, it was perhaps the most wonderful military meeting place the world has ever known. Every unit in the old BEF was represented … while there was a constant intermingling of Americans and French, and even of Italians and Serbs and Japanese. All handshaking, all cheero-ing, a veritable orgy of camaraderie.”
To the Rhinelanders, the British troops meant flourishing business, especially as they realised the occupying forces were not going to be hostile. “The simple fact was that the lack of rancour, the forgetfulness, the good nature of the incoming conqueror was a surprise to these Germans,” observed Tuohy.
Soon, no less than 30 theatres and 45 cinemas had been opened. The cafés and beer halls would be packed every minute of the opening hours, which were from 12:00 to 15:30 and from 18:00 to 22:30. Along one particular street, the Hohe Straße (one of the city’s oldest and busiest streets), every establishment was always full of troops. It was there where stop-gap hutments had been put up to provide cheque-cashing facilities. Some mornings there would be a queue of soldiers, 300 yards long, waiting to cash their cheques.
The Hohe Straße was the scene of never-ending bargaining between the troops and the shopkeepers, the latter always being accused of trying to overcharge. “Nevertheless,” remarked one of the occupiers, “it afforded a famous spectacle at this time, with the British Army on holiday in its streets and the Germans themselves somehow caught up in the atmosphere. Even in the darkest days they filled their Bierhalle. Beer, music and song. These formed their outlet, and about the cheapest commodities they were.”
The hatred and animosity of just a few months before quickly dissipated amidst the revelry. “At the Zoo, at concerts, in cafés – there our fellows sat amid beer laughter and song, their elbows touching the enemies of yesterday as though nothing in the world had happened. After all that concentrated murder and venom of more than four years.”
To add to the air of celebration, scarcely a week went by without dignitaries visiting the city. Usually to mark these arrivals there was a review of the forces on the Domplatz, led by a number of tanks.
Amongst the first dignitaries to arrive were the King and Queen of the Belgians who flew across the border to inspect the troops. Then Marshal Foch paid a visit. He, though, arrived in real style, sailing up the Rhine in a steamer emblazoned with the Allied flags and escorted by the British Rhine Flotilla. “Much booming of guns brought the Germans out on all sides to see the man who had beaten Ludendorff and Hindenburg at their own game,” wrote one witness. “It was about the only time the locals emerged from their studied non-interest. They hedged the Domplatz in silence as Foch took the salute.”
Joffre also visited, “looking bored”. Then Churchill in a hat “at least two sizes too small”. Earl Haig, and his successor Sir Henry Wilson, also reviewed the troops as did the Prince of Wales who used the ceremony to decorate the men of the Guards with some the medals they had been awarded.
The most memorable event in Cologne, though, was the first Remembrance Day, in November 1919. This was described by Captain Tuohy: “Dense German crowds stood motionless and mostly bareheaded as the troops, headed by Field Marshal Sir W. Robertson, preserved their first of many memory-contacts with those who had fallen. Perhaps a no less emotional Armistice remembrance used to have as its setting the Catholic Church of All Souls in Cologne. Here a catafalque would be erected draped with the Allied flags, and men of all the Allies, coloured too, would attend. But the choir which sang so sweetly, would be German. Then the Last Post from our buglers. One year after the War the picture of Germans singing by an Allied catafalque was one not easily forgotten.”
Germans and British sharing those moments of remembrance together; recalling the loss and sacrifice of those days when the young men of both nations thought little of killing each other. What hope there was then? Surely no-one could have contemplated that it would all be repeated less than 20 years later.